Our company name The Wordworms originates from the fact that we often start the day talking about a word or phrase, and often the day is closed with a similar activity. Therefore we have decided to let you have a glimpse into our findings from time to time. Maybe you'll be as surprised as we often are.

Please understand though that we won't translate any entries due to time constraints.

Entry 3 - Monday 7th August 2017 - GK

Harry Potter in translation


As 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter book, I decided to start rereading the whole series a couple of weeks ago. It had been 10 years since I last looked at them and some plots were much more familiar to me than others – namely, books 1-4, which I had each read more than twice.


While I was never a hardcore fan, I always looked forward to getting my hands on the latest copy. They are very captivating books. Until now, however, I never really gave much thought to how much of a challenge it would have been to translate them. Reading the series again, it dawned on me that it would indeed have been a huge undertaking!


J.K. Rowling litters the texts with regional dialects, puns and wordplay that would be tricky to accurately convey in other languages. I would be really interested in seeing how this has been done.


I wonder how translators got around such wordplay as the following:

  • proper nouns do not tend to be changed in literature. A name is a name, after all. Most names in Harry Potter are far from accidental. They often have French or Latin origins, which I imagine would make them easy to deal with in Romance or Germanic languages but little else. Draco Malfoy, for example, is immediately set up as cruel: Draco as in ‘draconian’ (Greek) or ‘dragon’ (Latin), and Malfoy from ‘mal foi’ (French) or ‘bad faith’ (Rowling frequently uses the literary device of foreshadowing). Lord Voldemort derives this stage name from an anagram of his birth name: ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ becomes ‘I am Lord Voldemort’. Voldemort itself literally means ‘flight of death’ or ‘theft of death’, which gives readers with more than a cursory knowledge of French a clue that he is the baddie. In such cases, do you simply leave the original as it is and then insert the translation in square brackets? I suppose that that would look pretty clumsy. I expect that the whole name is instead translated to fit whatever ‘I am Lord Voldemort’ would be in the target language.
  • the author capitalises verbs, nouns and adjectives that would not normally be capitalised in English, presumably to give them importance and make them stand out from everyday vocabulary. These words are magical spells that she has invented, such as to Stun, the Cruciatus Curse and Confunded. Is this capitalisation ignored in other languages? Are slight variations of existing words in the dictionary used to show they are related?
  • magical objects like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. The Pensieve combines ‘pensive’ with ‘sieve’ to describe a bowl that holds wizards’ extracted memories. It therefore evokes exactly the right image by using the same pronunciation as ‘pensive’, but also incorporating a variation in the spelling. What is the best way to deal with this in the translated text? Do you try to find two words in the target language that can be combined in this way, or do you leave it as it is?

The Harry Potter books may never be deemed classical works of literature, but they certainly provide a wealth of material for those who wish to analyse them in great depth. There are so many facets to examine – whether you want to look at translating etymology as touched upon here, or politics, or friendship, or symbolism… 


How did you find the books in your language? Does the translation interfere with your enjoyment of them?


If anyone has the books in Spanish or German, I would love to borrow them, please!

Entry 2 - Sunday 23rd April 2017 - GK

Stressing (about) words


They say that German is hard (“deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache”), but I seriously think English spelling and pronunciation could give it a run for its money.

I have been reflecting on word stress in English and Spanish this weekend, and don’t seem to remember ever having learnt its rules formally. It was pretty much a question of intuiting the right way to pronounce words, and failing that, mimicking others and hoping I didn’t sound like an ignorant fool.


When I was learning Spanish at school, I worked out for myself quite early on that the stress often falls on the penultimate syllable.


          For example,     planta (PLAN-ta, plant)     

                                    sacerdote (sa-cer-DO-te, priest)

                                    administrativo (ad-mi-ni-stra-TI-vo, administrative)


That is, unless there is an acute accent, which indicates a deviation from this rule.


          For example,     sartén (sar-TEN, frying pan)

                                    Ávila (A-vi-la, Avila)

                                    devuélvemelo (de-VUEL-ve-me-lo, return it to me)


I must say that this isn’t always the case, but you soon find that Spanish pronunciation is super consistent. It even gives you clues through those accents. My limited knowledge of German also shows me that it, too, is at least consistent in the way it is pronounced.


Not so in English.


At first glance, it seems to be a general rule that you stress the first syllable of a word.


          For example,     patience (PA-tience)

                                    decadent (DE-ca-dent)

                                    Arabic (AR-a-bic)

                                    alligator (AL-li-ga-tor)


But then, there are loads of exceptions.


          For example,     computer (com-PU-ter)

                                    understand (un-der-STAND)

                                    tutorial (tu-TOR-i-al)


I thought that maybe where the stress fell was dependent on the number of syllables in the word, but that didn’t help me find some consistency, either. The examples above are two, three and four syllables long.


Then I thought that maybe it was to distinguish between different meanings for similarly spelled words, such as desert (DES-ert) versus dessert (des-SERT), or to distinguish between nouns and verbs, such as suspect (SUS-pect, noun) versus suspect (sus-PECT, verb). But that doesn’t account for many of these oddities.


And it doesn’t even account for regional differences in pronunciation, like the scone or wrath controversies (my pronunciation has them rhyming with gone rather than cone, and cloth rather than hath). So, even natives of the language can’t seem to agree. But that might be a topic for another blog.


My conclusion is that I should probably read up on this in a grammar forum, and maybe invest some time in learning the phonetic alphabet so I can read those cryptic pronunciation guides in dictionaries. Until then, I’m going to keep winging it.

Entry 1 - Wednesday 19th April 2017 - RK

Today we have nothing to say yet, since we concentrated on getting this website up and running. But watch this space!


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